After a long period of poor mental health, I am now on the way to recovery. I have briefly mentioned that I’ve not been well, here on the blog and on my social media channels, but I didn’t want to write about it at length until I felt things have settled down. I hope sharing my expereince is helpful to anyone going through something similar.
I became unwell last Autumn and what started off as a bout of dark depression mutated into a relapse of my eating disorder. It’s difficult to pinpoint any one cause but I would mostly attribute it to a need to be in control. My mood had been wildly undulating for a long time and I felt helpless. I wanted to be in charge of something and restricting my calorie intake was a way of claiming some agency. I started reducing a little and it felt empowering, I got used to feeling hungry quickly and I learnt to like it. Internal emptiness reminded me that I was master of my own destiny. Within a week or two the restriction had escalated and I was consuming 1000-1200 calories a day. I was also doing hard-core workouts 7 days a week, along with drinking a reckless amount of coffee to give me energy. I kidded myself that I was in charge and I could stop any time but I knew deep down that the old eating disorder had taken hold. I had an appointment with my psychiatrist a month or so after the I’d relapsed and when he asked me how I was I told him I was feeling very down. He asked a few probing questions and eventually I admitted how little I was eating. He looked very concerned and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had a full blown eating disorder and that I needed to seek help urgently. He also said that there are no pills to cure eating disorders and the help he could offer would need to be supplemented with appropriate talk therapy. He put me in touch with a specialised eating disorder therapist. He also said that being hungry all the time makes people miserable and my mood would not improve until I ate more. I did not want to hear what my doctor had to say but I trust his judgement and I reluctantly made an appointment with the therapist.
I told my family what my psychiatrist had said and they were upset and worried. Although I adhered to his instructions and started seeing the eating disorder therapist regularly, I was convinced that they were all making a fuss about nothing. After all, I was still at a healthy weight and I certainly did not present like someone who was starving. I’m heavier than I look because I’m rather muscular, so when I stepped on the scales, the number was still relatively high for a woman of my height, according to a BMI scale. It has been proven that judging a person’s health by a Body Mass Index chart is very misleading because BMI does not take account of muscle. Even though I know this to be true, I couldn’t quite convince myself that the numbers were meaningless. I usually wear a size 8 to 10 and I knew I was not fat but I was still obsessed with the number on those scales. The disorder wasn’t really about my appearance, but mastering those digits that flashed up every morning, when ritualistically I weighed myself.
One of the most pernicious symptoms of an eating disorder is that the sufferer does not think they are sick. In fact, I thought my doctor, therapist and family were lying to me and were in cahoots, trying to make me fat. My cognitive understanding operated on two levels; the rational, logical part of me knew this notion to be absurd, however my reasonable self was not in command. The eating disorder was like living with a bully inside my head who constantly insisted that I was good enough. The bully teased and tantalised with the promise that worthiness was just a few pounds away. What surprised me was how quickly the thought patterns took hold and before I knew it, the eating disorder was controlling me, not the other way around. Suddenly, the bully was out of my head and standing behind me with a knife to my throat, threatening that something terrible would happen if I dared eat too much.
I knew things were getting bad when I started having sinister hallucinations. Shadows moved as though they were people and the face of the devil appeared in coats slung across the backs of chairs, rumpled pillows or bed sheets. This was a bit like the moments in The Exorcist when a demonic face flashes on screen for a fraction of a second, then disappears. Spiders the size of dinner plates lurked in every dark corner, I saw dead bodies and even a decapitated head in the microwave. The most vivid hallucination appeared when I was taking my son for a walk in the park. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an elderly woman wearing a red and green floral coat with a matching hat; she looked like she was dressed for church. I turned to face her but she was gone. I knew that they were hallucinations, which indicates I do not have schizophrenia, thank goodness. However, the surety that the corpses, demonic faces, giant spiders, shadow people and mysterious old ladies were hallucinated was not very comforting. I felt like I was being haunted.
I knew eating more would improve my mental and physical health; my muscles and joints hurt from excessive exercise, I could barely concentrate on anything and I felt isolated from the people around me. It was like I was walking around in a bell jar filled with fog. However, the thought of increasing my calories and possibly gaining weight was terrifying. I was stranded in my own horror movie, tormented by hallucinations and paralysed by a fear of food. I was desperate to get better; I wasn’t aiming for anything as ambitious as happiness, just health and stability. I wanted to recover so I could be present for my son and not pass any of these body-hangups and toxic obsessions to him. I want to be here for my husband, my family and my friends. I also want to work and contribute to the world because I feel I have something to offer. The toll it was taking on my loved ones was painfully apparent, and I felt terrible for making them suffer. The hallucinations were also a clear indication that I was in bad shape; if a decapitated head in a microwave isn’t a sign that something has gone awry, I don’t know what is.
I started seeing a dietician, who created an eating plan that I was to stick to, without deviation. She stipulated that I had to eat carbs with every meal, which was, at first, scary and overwhelming. I was constantly bloated and uncomfortable but with the support of my therapist, psychiatrist and my loved ones, I kept going and I started to recover. When my calorie intake went above 1500 the hallucinations stopped, which was a blessed relief. I’m now eating what would be considered a normal, balanced diet. I’m still not completely better and there are a few unhealthy habits I am working towards changing but I am out danger. I’m inspired by the amazing women who are a part of the online body positivity movement who accept and celebrate their bodies, regardless of size or shape. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m trying to be more positive about my body and what it can do, rather than what it looks like. I’m focusing on the things I like about myself, both physically and mentally. My eating disorder is about me exerting neurotic control, so part of my recovery is accepting most things are beyond my influence and finding a way to be at peace.
I’m still a little surprised that I relapsed. My eating disorder developed in my teens and it reared its ugly head again in my 20s, but it’s been dormant for over a decade. I write and talk extensively about mental health and I have been in therapy for years, I had assumed it was no longer a threat. It has become clear to me that Bulimia, Anorexia and Binge Eating Disorder can strike at any time. I certainly didn’t resemble the stereotype of a frail young girl with jutting bones and yet I was very unwell indeed. This was a relatively brief episode but it could have been so much worse if I hadn’t taken my psychiatrist’s advice. I accept that I will always have to be mindful that my relationship with food stays healthy and that I don’t start restricting the next time things get tough.
If you think you have an eating disorder, or you are worried about someone you are close to, please seek help. The first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem and I know how hard that is. But you don’t have to live under the tyranny of an eating disorder; it’s a vicious, potentially fatal illness that wrecks lives. In fact, anorexia is the most deadly of all mental illnesses, killing 1 in 5 sufferers. The Beat web site is a brilliant resource and has lots of useful information on getting treatment. Early intervention is essential because when an eating disorder goes on for too long it causes catastrophic, often irreversible damage. The harm caused isn’t just physiological but neurological too, as my hallucinations will attest. It may seem bleak now but recovery is possible, if you get help.